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How Does Social Media Affect Mental Health in the Workplace?

Humans need social connections—both physical and digital—to thrive. 

While the desired frequency and intensity of social interactions vary between individuals, the sudden absence of social contact—as experienced during the pandemic—can take a major toll on mental and emotional wellbeing.

According to the latest Social Media Usage report from Pew Research Center, a majority of individuals rely on social media platforms to find and connect with others every day—for some, it’s even part of their jobs. These social relationships have proven to be just as effective as in-person relationships at managing stress, anxiety, and depression; boosting self-worth; and preventing loneliness, especially during times of turmoil.

But without moderation, social media usage can invoke the same polarized feelings of overstimulation and isolation as imbalanced in-person relationships. In the workplace, this can lead to employees feeling disengaged, uninterested in career development, and incredibly burned out.

With social media being a permanent staple of personal and professional connections, the onus is on employers to understand how social media affects employee mental health and offer effective solutions that set workforces up for success.

What We Know About Social Media’s Impact on Mental Health

The impact of social media on wellbeing has been two-fold since its inception and subsequent ubiquity.

Research shows that, despite face-to-face social interactions being the legacy gold standard of social connection, nearly one in four individuals claim that their most recent meaningful social interactions happened on a social media platform. 

What’s more—those same interactions were found to be just as meaningful as in-person interactions. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the long-term benefits of these meaningful interactions are integral to improving mental wellbeing, often leading to longer, happier, and healthier lifespans.

Conversely, the increased adoption of technology has also led to a unique form of stress that researchers call “technostress.” This is thought to be caused in large part by an individual’s inability to cope or an over-identification with technology. 

Either form of technostress can be the source of mental and physical issues, including:

Research also highlights social media’s impact on depression and anxiety and how it may instill feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out), negative habits of social comparison, and even disruptions in sleep quality.

In addition to experiencing depressive symptoms from imbalanced social media use, individuals also typically experience:

  • Persistent sadness or anxiousness
  • Increased frustration and irritability
  • Decreased energy

How Social Media Can Affect Employees at Work

Whether it's positive or negative, social media's impact on daily life inevitably spills over into the workplace.

Researchers have argued that social media can actually play an important role in reducing work stress. From boosting morale to preventing employee burnout, several studies have determined several positive benefits of healthy social media usage in the workplace.

Here’s how social media can actually help organizations build and maintain a culture of wellbeing that fosters growth.

From a Culture Perspective

Despite the abundance of research highlighting the negative effects of social media, these platforms can also provide opportunities for positive outcomes in the workplace.

Permitting the use of popular social media platforms allows employers to create an inclusive, transparent culture of connection between employees and even clients. As more Millennial and Gen Z employees populate the workforce and prioritize remote work, social networking sites can be an effective tool in reducing feelings of loneliness and social isolation—emotions that have become more commonplace during and post-pandemic.

According to various studies, social media can also benefit workplace culture by enhancing employees’ sense of belonging and increasing feelings of happiness.

From a Productivity Perspective

While historically cited as a distraction from work, social media has actually been proven to improve employee job satisfaction by:

  • Reducing turnover. Having an accessible social platform to celebrate wins and successes and give recognition for a job well done can help employees stay engaged. According to a study from 2014, 79% of employees who left their jobs did so because they felt underappreciated in their roles.
  • Empowering collaboration and knowledge sharing. Information sharing is an invaluable strength of social media platforms. When used mindfully, it can be a great medium for collaboration, and without a platform to share and acquire job-specific knowledge, teams may not be effectively positioned to achieve goals

While the productivity benefits of workplace social media are clear, they can also bring distractions. There are a few signs and external indicators that may allude to problematic social media use at work, such as:

  • Decreased employee engagement
  • Reduced motivation to overperform
  • Stagnant career growth

How to Foster Productivity and Wellbeing Without Discounting Social Media

When considering the positive and negative effects of workplace social media use, how can employers foster a culture of productivity and wellbeing without disregarding the positive effect that social media can have on employees?

There are several ways in which employers can enact meaningful policies and practices regarding social network usage at work. Here are a few places to start when building social media into your unique culture.

1. Set clear boundaries about social media use and time spent online after-hours

While there’s no legislation in the U.S. that outlines a “right to disconnect,” employers can take inspiration from the law and apply it to their own workplaces. 

The “right to disconnect” refers to an employee’s freedom to refrain from taking after-hours calls and replying to emails—a line that’s often blurred as people spend an increasing amount of time online.

Examples of boundaries may include:

  • Communicating an understanding of and respect for personal time off
  • Clear leadership management on behavioral expectations
  • Setting up a “reply-all” email policy to negate unnecessary messages
  • Reminding employees about taking time for themselves by discouraging emails or messages for specific days or times of the week
2. Enact an empathetic social media policy, or introduce a work-specific platform

Eliminating social media from the workplace entirely is impossible to do—and not necessarily a great idea. 

Understanding the human desire to stay connected is integral to developing an empathetic social media policy. Instead of prohibiting social media at work, consider how its values can be applied across the workplace.

For example, introducing work-specific social platforms can facilitate healthy communication, collaboration, and relationship building by allowing employees to interact with coworkers and managers in a familiar social media environment.

3. Educate employees on the impacts of social media and how to manage their wellbeing

As part of a robust corporate wellness program, educating employees about social media, its effects, and how to navigate it with intention and care can produce invaluable benefits for employers and employees alike.

Most health professionals recommend less than two hours of screen time per day for most adults—outside of work-related activities. This number drops even more when talking specifically about social media use. Researchers found that limiting social media time to 30 minutes a day or less is conducive to increased wellbeing.

Employers may choose to host a social media webinar to educate employees about its positive and negative effects. Afterward, challenge and incentivize employees to reduce their per-day screen time. Consider turning it into a group challenge with a leaderboard to incentivize participation.

How Managers Can Promote Wellbeing for Social Media-Savvy Workforces

Equitably supporting employee mental health can be challenging—especially when something as pervasive as social media can have major effects on wellbeing.

Employers and managers have a responsibility to facilitate the health and happiness of employees by building and maintaining a culture of wellbeing. Starting on that path is often the hardest part.

That’s why we’ve developed a downloadable guide for managers that aims to inform and awaken positive change in the workplace through active and empathetic management.

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